Is there any Truth behind the Tales of the Undead?
The myth of the vampire is a very old one, dating back to ancient Egypt and Greece. Today, in our well-lit sprawling cities, there is no place for such a legend, except in horror films and the books of the American fantasy novelist Anne Rice. Vampires are just figments of the imagination, the bogey-men of gullible rural peasants who lived in a bygone superstitious age. That's what common sense leads us to believe; but even in modern times Dracula-like beings prowling the world continue to be reported. Shortly before midnight on 8 June 1993, over a thousand people turned up at a cemetery in Pisco, Peru, in the hope of witnessing the resurrection of an alleged vampire named Sarah Ellen Roberts. Local historians and officials from the British Embassy had recently been shocked to learn that the corpse of Mrs Roberts had been brought to Pisco from Blackburn, England, by her husband John Roberts in 1913, because British authorities refused to let him bury his wife in England, as they believed her to be a vampire. Mr Roberts dismissed the refusal as an absurdity, but subsequently bought a lead-lined coffin for his deceased wife, and allegedly roamed the world for four years, seeking out a country that would allow him to bury her. Finally, Mrs Roberts came to Peru, where he was allowed to inter his wife at Pisco for the sum of five pounds. Shortly after the ad hoc burial service, Mr Roberts boarded a ship for England and was never heard of again. Then the news from England reached Pisco; Sarah Ellen Roberts had been bound in
from her grave at midnight. Hundreds of local women left the town 'to prevent the vampire being reincarnated in their new-born children', and cloves of garlic and crucifixes festooned the front doors of almost every house in the region. When midnight arrived, the vampire mania reached a peak, and police had to be called in to controll the hysterical crowds. Shots were fired in the air, and slowly the crowds dispersed. A small group of local witch doctors were apparently allowed to stay at the controversial grave, where they splashed the cracked headstone with holy water and sprinkled white rose petals around. The English vampire did not rise, and the witch doctors later celebrated their 'success' at laying the undead woman to rest.
chains and shut up in the lead-lined coffin after being found guilty of witchcraft, murder and vampirism. Just before the lid of the coffin was screwed down, the Lancashire witch had screamed she would return from the grave to seek vengeance.
The Peruvian peasants in the town trembled at the news. Eighty years later in June 1993, people visiting a grave in the Pisco cemetery were terrified when they witnessed a large crack appearing in the headstone of the Blackburn woman's grave. That night, over a thousand excitement seekers and occultists descended on the graveyard when the word went round that the vampire would rise
Such superstitious mumbo jumbo is excusable in a remote Peruvian town, but there have also been a number of vampire alerts in the bustling metropolis of London. The first scare occurred in the spring of 1922, when an enormous black bat-like creature with a wing span of six feet was seen flying around West Drayton Church during the night of a full moon. Several terrified witnesses watched the creature dive into the churchyard, where it roamed the tombs. When it was chased by two policemen, the creature let out a loud blood-curdling screech, flapped its wings, and soared skywards. An old man who claimed he had seen the giant bat twenty-five years previously, maintained that it was the spirit of a vampire who had murdered a woman to drink her blood in Harmondsworth in the 1890s. No one took the oldster's tale seriously. Later that month, on the morning of 16 April at around 6 am, an office clerk on his way to work was walking down Coventry Street in London's West End. As he strolled into a turning off the street, something invisible to his eyes seized him and pierced his neck. The man felt blood being drawn, then fell to the pavement unconscious. He woke up in Charing Cross Hospital and told his unusual tale. The surgeons who quizzed him said someone must have stabbed him with a thin tube, but the victim disagreed; he was absolutely certain that no one had been close enough to deliver such a thrust. Two and a half hours later something incredible happened which still defies explanation; a second man was brought to the same hospital. he too was bleeding profusely from the lower neck, and when he regained consciousness, he also told how he had been walking down Coventry Street when something intangible attacked him - on the very same corner where the office worker had been struck down by an unseen attacker. Later that evening a third victim of the invisible assailant was admitted to the hospital. The doctors at Charing Cross were absolutely dumbfounded when the police told them that the latest victim had been stabbed at precisely the same spot as the two other casualties - at a turning off Coventry Street. An investigation into the bizarre crimes was launched as rumours of a vampire at large in London swept the capital. The newshounds of Fleet Street pricked their ears up at the rumours. The Daily Express reported the sinister Coventry Street assaults and asked the police if they had any theories on the strange crimes. A police spokesman reluctantly admitted that the injuries sustained by the three men at Coventry Street defied rational explanation, and there had been no headway in finding the bloodthirsty attacker. With his tongue placed firmly in his cheek, a reporter asked the spokesman if the police had considered the theory of the Coventry Street attacker being a vampire. The spokesman just chortled nervously and said 'That's all'.
Another rumour swept the City; the Coventry Street vampire had been cornered by the police and killed by a professional vampire hunter who had been drafted in for the job! Furthermore, the bloodsucker had been secretly interred with a wooden stake through its heart in a deep vault up in Highgate Cemetery. The rumour was traced to a pub in Covent Garden where an off-duty policeman told a landlord of his part in the vampire hunt that had stretched across London. It is of course, easy to dismiss the policeman's yarn as bunkum, but by a strange coincidence, London's second vampire scare took place at Highgate Cemetery forty-eight years after the Coventry Street vampire episode.
Highgate Cemetery was founded in 1836 when the London Cemetery Company purchased 17 acres of land in the north of the city. The company's gardener was something of a horticultural genius who transfigured the purchased acreage into a breathtaking peaceful oasis of greenery with tree-lined avenues, shrubs and meandering pathways. But there were problems ahead. The outbreak of the First World War deprived the cemetery of labour, and the number of plots for sale were dropping to double figures. Furthermore, cremation was also emerging as a popular alternative to burial. With insufficient funds for its upkeep, the cemetery was neglected, and the shrubbery and wildflowers were overtaken with weeds which enshrouded tombs and gravestones by the score. Then the vandals invaded the wilderness of the abandoned cemetery, daubing their names and profanities on the tombs. In December 1969, a group of occultists prowled the forsaken dormitory of the dead painting Voodoo symbols on a number of gravestones and chanting incantations in the hope of resurrecting a corpse. Urban legend has it that the occultists broke into a tomb and disturbed something that sent them running for their lives; an eight-foot wiry figure clad entirely in black which emerged from a hole in the tomb that led to catacombs. The fleeing necromancers scaled the railings of the cemetery and leaped to safety; one of them looked back as he raced down Swains Lane and saw the man in black reaching through the railings at him with a long boney arm.
The next alleged sighting of the Highgate Vampire occurred in January 1970, when a motorist from Milton Park was driving down Swains Lane near the entrance of the cemetery, when the engine of his car started to sputter. The man pulled into a parking space and got out the vehicle to lift the bonnet open, when he noticed an abnormally tall shadowy figure peering at him through the entrance gates of the cemetery. The motorist was so terrified at the apparition, he ran off without closing the bonnet of his car.
The vampire rumours gained substance over the following months with several more macabre encounters which attracted the attention of the media. An Essex schoolteacher, appropriately named Alan Blood organized a mass vampire hunt that would take place on Friday 13 March, 1970. Mr Blood was interviewed on television, and the London Evening News ran a front page story on him. Blood said he thought the Highgate Vampire had been driven from his lair in the cemetery by the crowds of sensationalists who had kept an all-night vigil near the tomb where the vampire was frequently seen. The schoolteacher's plan was to wait until dawn, when the first rays of the rising sun would force the vampire to return to his subterranean den in the catacombs, then he would kill the Satanic creature in the time-honoured tradition; by driving a wooden stake through its heart.
On the night of Friday 13th, hundreds of people stormed Highgate Cemetery carrying lit and electric torches, crucifixes, garlic cloves and sharp wooden stakes. At dawn on the following morning, there was no sign of the vampire. Some thought that the irresponsible rowdy mobs had scared the creature off. By the morning light, œ9,000 worth of damage had been caused by the rampaging crowds. In an orgy of desecration they had exhumed the remains of a woman from a tomb, stolen lead from coffins, and defaced sepulchres with mindless graffiti.
In September of that year, police apprehended a Mr David Farrant - a self-appointed vampire hunter - as he scaled the wall of Highgate Cemetery, armed with a cross and a wooden stake. The police took him to court, but Mr Farrant was released on a technicality. The vampire hunter evidently sent shivers up the magistrate's spine with his final remark to the court: "The Highgate Vampire has to be destroyed. He is evil."
Mr Farrant later told press reporters that he had seen the vampire on several occasions, and described it as a gangly figure about eight feet in height. He believed the vampire slept by day in the catacombs beneath Highgate.
Today, Highgate Cemetery is open to the public. In its Eastern Cemetery you will find the tomb of Karl Marx near to the grave of Sid Vicious of the notorious Sex Pistols punk rock band. The Western Cemetery is only open for guided tours.
Some students of the occult believe the whole vampire story is just a fictitious yarn that snowballed out of hysteria, but many of the people who allegedly saw the Highgate fiend say it was real and not the result of some mass hallucination.
Another vampire was said to be at large in England's picturesque Lake District in 1900. In January of that year, a Captain Edward Fisher left Croglin Grange - a bleak glorified granite-brick farmhouse in Cumbria - and headed south to Guildford, where he had purchased a new residence for business purposes. The new residents of Croglin Grange were Fisher's godsons, Edward and William Cranswell, and their 19-year-old sister, Amelia, who had jumped at the opportunity of taking up the seven-year lease on the secluded but beautifully located property. The trio were popular with the neighbours, and seemed to be settling in well at their new home. But in the first summer at Croglin Grange, which was infernal, Amelia found it difficult to sleep at night. She would lie in her stifling bedroom, gazing out at the moonlit nightscape beyond the windows. One night she opened her bedroom window and stared out into the darkness when she suddenly noticed the silhouette of a lanky, bony figure darting across the moonlit lawn. Within seconds the agile, sinister-looking stranger was scaling the wall below her, so she slammed the window shut and fastened its catch. Almost paralysed with fear, Amelia retreated from the window as she listened to the figure scrambling up the wall. She sat on the end of the bed, trying to shout out to her brothers, but found she could hardly raise her voice. Then the figure was at the window. At this closer range she could see he was grotesque. The face was yellowed and shrivelled, and the eyes were almost black circular sockets. The nose was long and pointed, and the mouth, which was unusually large, showed a set of pointed, gruesome-looking teeth. The creature's bony finger scratched at the window as it picked away the lead lining of a pane. The pane rattled, then fell out, and the ghoul reached in through the hole and undid the window catch. It opened the window and bolted across the room towards its terrified prey. Amelia collapsed onto the bed in a state of sheer terror. The skeletal freak seized the trembling teenager by her hair and held her still as he bit into her neck. In the life-threatening situation, Amelia somehow summoned up enough courage to let out a scream which sent her brothers running into her room. They caught a glimpse of the nimble intruder leaping out of the bedroom through the window. They ran downstairs, unbolted the door and pursued the wiry assailant across the lawn and over the neighbouring churchyard wall, where they lost sight of him. William and Edward stood staring into the darkness for a while, then returned to their traumatized sister. When they saw the crimson fang-marks on her neck they knew that no ordinary intruder had been in her bedroom, but they could not believe the assailant had been a vampire.
One night in the following March, the creature returned to Croglin Grange during a severe gale. As the winds howled across the barren landscape outside, the bony finger was once again at work removing a pane from the Amelia's bedroom window, but this time the moan of the gales swamped the sound of scratching finger. The teenager awoke and found the vampire leaning over her. His cold and clammy hands grabbed her neck, and the woman screamed. The two brothers burst into the room armed with pistols. The vampire left his prey and attacked the brothers, but Edward opened fire, blasting a hole in the bloodthirsty stalker's thigh. Apparently unaffected by the gunshot, the Cumbrian vampire turned and literally dived through the open window. The chase was on again, but this time the brothers saw where the creature went to ground; in an old family vault in the churchyard.
The brothers alerted the local villagers, and on the following morning over seventy people gathered around the family vault that was said to be the vampire's lair. William, Edward and three brave villagers lifted the large sandstone slab of the vault and peered into the darkness. A torch was lit, and the crowd beheld the disturbing scene within the vault. Four broken coffins and their mutilated corpses. A fifth coffin in the corner was intact. The crowd drew back in fear as the brothers lifted the lid on this coffin - to reveal the same hideous creature that had attacked their sister twice at Croglin Grange. The corpse even bore the recent mark of the pistol shot in its thigh. One of the villagers stepped forward and told the brothers he too had seen this same creature of the night attacking and killing livestock, and he said the only way to destroy a vampire was with fire, so he and the brothers took the creature out into the churchyard, and after the villagers had gathered enough wood, the vampire was burned on a bonfire.
FROM TOM SLEMEN'S "STRANGE BUT TRUE",
ISBN: 0-75252-407-0 (PARRAGON)
Incidentally, at the time of writing there are rumours abounding in Liverpool that a vampire is at large in the Lodge lane area of Toxteth and Edge Hill... I'll keep you posted...
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